Les Nabis Art Movement: History, Art & Characteristics

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Can art be mystical? In this lesson, we're going to explore the history, ideologies, and styles of the Les Nabis movement in art. We'll meet some major figures and see what this group thought about art.

Les Nabis

What would you say if we told you that art was a pathway to the divine, an expression of one's soul that revealed invisible connections to supreme power and divinity? Well, we're not going to tell you that, but Paul Sérusier might have.

Sérusier was the founder of an artistic secret society in France called Les Nabis (pronounced leh naw-bee). The group's name comes from the Hebrew word for ''prophet,'' indicating how the members saw themselves as prophets of modern art, sent to revitalize and reform the artistic community of Europe. Lasting from 1888-1899, this cultish sect of the avant-garde sought to find hidden beauty and spiritual awakening in all they did and brought that into the realm of fine art.


The first question with any secret society is this: how did it come to be? With Les Nabis, the story starts with Paul Sérusier agreeing to meet the famous Post-Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin. Gauguin was championing a new idea in art, called Synthetism. The Synthetists believed that art should represent a synthesis of the subject and the artist's feelings about the subject. In short, a painting was not just an image of a fruit bowl, it was an image of the artist's feelings and experiences with that object.

The Talisman, by Paul Serusier

Sérusier was deeply impacted by his time with Gauguin and painted one of his masterpieces, The Talisman, under Gauguin's tutelage. Inspired by Synthetist ideologies and stylistic goals, Sérusier set out to define his own movement. He organized a group of friends, and together they became Les Nabis. Of the original members, the most notable were Maurice Denis, Pierre Bonnard, and Édouard Vuillard. The group met at the home of friend Paul Ranson and established their own ideology about art.

The Ideology of Les Nabis

Les Nabis was dedicated to the concept of exploring art in both personal and spiritual terms, embracing a mystical attitude about the relationship between painter and painting. They sought the magical and spiritual in everything, even in mundane and commonplace objects or scenes, and tried to capture that sense of mysticism in their art. As thus, their art was deeply symbolic and layered in religious and personal meanings.

Les Nabis member Maurice Denis once said that a painting was ''essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order''. His message was that the scene itself was not a window into reality but a collection of pigments that had to be given meaning. Les Nabis painters found ways to give meaning to their art through the deep symbolism connected to every line, every color, and every shape.

Motif Romanesque, by Maurice Denis

Style of Les Nabis

In aesthetic terms, Les Nabis wanted to change the ways that European fine art was perceived, challenging the traditions of art alongside other Post-Impressionist movements. Taking inspiration from Gauguin, they utilized thick lines and flat planes of color to introduce larger degrees of abstraction into their art. They rejected the illusion of depth and even the linear perspective that had defined Western art for centuries. To them, it was only by freeing form, line, and color that these elements could work to create symbolic and spiritual art. In short, abstraction paved the way to greater emotional and religious truths.

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